The DNA Payday: How Marketers Might Use And Abuse Genetic Data

We’ve all seen the commercials: Send a little swab, and you can find out whole new secrets about your family and its origins based on DNA.  

For instance, one family that thought it was Hungarian found out it was really Portuguese, an ad says. Such a revelation can change your life. 

There’s only one problem: that these services are “adding a treasure trove of DNA information to enormous datasets that are already being tapped by tech-savvy businesses,” according to a study by Wharton professors, titled Genetic Data: Potential Uses and Misuses in Marketing.

With 30 million people having done one of the swabs, this has led to “accumulation of massive genetic databases by privately owned companies, such as 23andMe and Ancestry,” says co-author Gideon Nave, an assistant professor at Wharton, in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton. 



Nave adds: “These genetic datasets are commonly used in health care applications, such as informing consumers about genetic risks. However, we also noticed that marketing teams of several global firms started incorporating genetic data into marketing campaigns.”

Case in point: Spotify partnered with Ancestry to help consumers create playlists that reflect their ancestry.

AirBnB partnered with 23andMe to offer trips tailored to a person’s genetic heritage. And Aeromexico offered discounts to people who could prove “Mexican DNA.”

On the benign side, think of DNA as one more variable to add into the rich mix of data that includes browsing behavior, purchase history, age and gender to fuel real-time messaging via email, web, social media and text.

Say your DNA test confirms that you are of Irish ancestry and you browse some sites on travel in Ireland. Perfect, right?

Maybe. Or a pizza restaurant “could partner with a genetic-testing company, like Spotify and AirBnB did, and try to create a genetically personalized promotion strategy and customized ads for each consumer,” say Nave. “They may not even need an access to genetic data, and simply ask the genetic-testing company to run the campaign on their behalf.” 

Right. But why bother? People from all backgrounds enjoy pizza. There is a great risk of stereotyping. 

But there are bigger risks.  

“Once a private company holds the data, they might be interested in monetizing it as much as possible, which includes selling it to other companies, and ultimately risk being detrimental to consumers,” says Remi Daviet, postdoctoral researcher at Wharton. 

Daviet observes that “your genome is not only informative about yourself, but also about your relatives who share part of their genome with you. These relatives might not have given their consent for you to share their data and have companies trying to monetize it.”

Then there’s the risk of misinformation. “Over the past years we have witnessed the emergence of startups that allegedly tailor wine recommendations or help people find romantic partners based on their genetic markup,” Nave says. “These applications are not based on solid science, and we are concerned that the average consumer might not realize that.”

Marketing is one thing. Think of this information falling into the wrong hands in governments. 

The authors argue that maybe DNA marketing should be legislatively squelched before anything bad really happens. 

“We believe that genetic data should be considered as very personal and sensitive, like medical records or tax returns,” Daviet concludes. “Regulations that prevent retaining and sharing data would probably be beneficial in that sense.”

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